FAA Will Respond to NTSB's SpaceShipTwo Report Within 90 Days

FAA Will Respond to NTSB's SpaceShipTwo Report Within 90 Days

Eight of the 10 recommendations adopted by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) yesterday about the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) crash were directed at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).  An FAA spokesman said today the FAA will respond within the next three months.  The other two were for the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) and its President, Eric Stallmer, said CSF would carry them out promptly.

FAA spokesman Hank Price told SpacePolicyOnline.com that the FAA “takes all NTSB recommendations seriously and we will review and respond to them within 90 days as required.”

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the fatal SS2 accident on October 31, 2014 was that the spaceplane’s builder, Scaled Composites, did not take into account the possibility that a single human error could cause a catastrophic accident and mitigate against it.  That failure “set the stage” for co-pilot Michael Alsbury to unlock a feathering system meant to slow the craft during descent at the wrong time.  The spaceplane was torn apart by aerodynamic forces.  Alsbury died.  Pilot Peter Siebold was injured, but survived.

Scaled is owned by Northrop Grumman.  Scaled President Kevin Mickey said in a statement after the NTSB ruling that safety “has always been a critical component” of its culture, its pilots are “experienced and well trained,” and “we have already made changes in the wake of the accident to further enhance safety.”

Alsbury and Siebold both worked for Scaled and Scaled designed, built and operated the SS2 spaceplane that was destroyed in the accident.  It was under contract to Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic (VG), which plans to build as many as five of them to take people on suborbital trips to space.  VG is itself now building the second spaceplane.  In a “party submission” to the NTSB, VG listed remedial steps it has taken.  They include adding an automatic mechanical inhibit to prevent a pilot from incorrectly unlocking or locking the feathering system during safety-critical phases of flight.  VG has total responsibility for the second spaceplane, but Mickey said Scaled and VG continue to have a relationship and an agreement for parts and services.

As for AST, the NTSB questioned several aspects of its regulatory actions in granting an experimental license to Scaled and overseeing compliance.  By law, AST has a dual role in regulating and facilitating commercial space launch services and reentries.  Its regulatory authority is to protect the public, property and the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.

When Congress created AST in the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act, the intent was for a light regulatory hand that would not stifle a nascent industry by creating unnecessary, burdensome regulations.   The Act has been amended and updated several times over the intervening decades.  That objective has remained the same.

In this case, however, the NTSB found AST’s evaluation of Scaled’s application for an experimental permit was “deficient.” The NTSB focused on waivers AST granted in 2013 and 2014, that were not requested by Scaled, after it determined that the hazard analysis Scaled submitted did not meet the software and human error requirements of AST’s regulations.  NTSB said AST issued the waivers after concluding public health and safety would not be jeopardized and that Scaled had necessary mitigations in place, but did so “without understanding whether the mitigations would adequately protect against a single human error with catastrophic consequences [or] … were sufficient  to ensure public safety.”   In addition, “Scaled did not request the waiver, participate in the waiver evaluation process, or have an opportunity to comment on the waiver before it was issued (except to identify proprietary information that should not be disclosed).”

NTSB also reported that some of AST’s technical staff complained that “their questions that did not directly relate to public safety were filtered by FAA/AST management to reduce the burden on Scaled.”  AST’s responsibility is public safety, but the NTSB found that the “dividing line” between questions related to public safety and those to meet mission objectives is “not always apparent.”

Among the eight NTSB recommendations to the FAA is for AST to develop clearer policies, practices and procedures that allow direct communications between its staff and applicants; clearer guidance on evaluating permits, waivers and licenses; and better define the line between information needed to ensure public safety and that needed for mission success.

The NTSB also made two recommendations to the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), an industry association working to make commercial human spaceflight a reality.  Those recommendations are to help industry ensure better emergency response procedures and to work with the FAA to develop and issue human factors guidance that commercial space operators can use throughout design and operation of a crewed vehicle.  In a statement, CSF President Eric Stallmer pledged support to carry out those recommendations promptly.

AST is a relatively small office within the FAA, and while there is no hint in the NTSB report that budget or staffing shortages were a factor, the FAA has been trying to increase AST’s level of resources.  The FY2016 budget request for AST is $18.114 million, a $1.5 million increase over its FY2015 level.  Congress has not been enthusiastic about granting all of that increase, however.

AST is funded as part of the Transportation-HUD appropriations bill.  The House approved only a $250,000 increase and the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended an $820,000 increase.

Mike Gold of Bigelow Aerospace chairs the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) that provides independent advice to AST.  Gold said in an interview that perhaps one silver lining is that the SS2 accident and investigation may stimulate a discussion about the appropriate level of resources that AST requires.

In addition to its regular duties, AST has been involved in investigations of three accidents in the past 8 months:  Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares failure on October 28, 2014 (Orb-3);  the SS2 accident three days later; and the SpaceX Falcon 9 failure (CRS-7) on June 28, 2015.  All were licensed by AST.  While AST does not take the lead in the investigations, its staff participates.  As Gold said, launching into space is hard and accidents are going to happen – “AST needs more resources to deal with these issues.”

CSF’s Stallmer also vowed to continue working with Congress to ensure that AST has the resources it needs “to fully address the safety findings and recommendations in the [NTSB] report.”

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